Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 39;   September 23, 2020: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: I

Seven More Planning Pitfalls: I

by

Planners and members of planning teams are susceptible to patterns of thinking that lead to unworkable plans. But planning teams also suffer vulnerabilities. Two of these are Group Polarization and Trips to Abilene.
Auklet flock, Shumagins, March 2006

Auklet flock, Shumagins, March 2006. Emergent behaviors in human groups are perhaps less noticeable as such than are the emergent behaviors of swarms and flocks. But they can be just as impactful. Photo by D. Dibenski, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service courtesy Wikimedia.

In the first three posts in this series, I described seven thought patterns that cause individual planners to think in ways that lead to plans with inherent weaknesses. These phenomena influence planners even when planners have enough time and resources to execute the planning exercise. They include widely held but inapplicable beliefs, several cognitive biases, and several organizational influences. But for plans devised by teams, there are additional effects that cause trouble as well. These phenomena are related to how teams think collectively. Let's begin with Group Polarization and Trips to Abilene.

Group polarization
Group polarization is the tendency of groups to adopt positions more extreme than any of their members would adopt if acting individually. When group members learn that their own more radical inclinations are shared by other group members, they tend to assess those inclinations as validated. This experience propagates through the group, in an emergent fashion, each member influencing the others, until the more radical position is firmly held by all. Members then feel comfortable abandoning any remaining reluctance or doubt.
Planning teams are susceptible to group polarization. For example, when assessing risks for particular options, they must make judgments as a group. Judging a risk as high or low can determine whether or not they adopt a particular plan option. Other vulnerable judgments include vendor selection, staff assignments, effort estimates — almost anything the team must decide.
Secret ballots provide one approach to mitigating group polarization. But the safety secret ballots provide is limited, because the team must necessarily engage in open discussion. For protection in open discussion, the team can appoint a "Curmudgeon Team" to oppose radical positions as they appear. Read about curmudgeon teams.
Trips to Abilene
In an insightful work, The Abilene Paradox, Jerry Harvey describes how a group can commit to a course that no group member favors. [Harvey 1988] When a group takes a "trip to Abilene," nobody feels that the group is behaving sensibly. Because they all feel that everyone else favors the group's choice, no one questions it openly. The group then takes action that no member agrees with.
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to the Abilene Paradox. They are especially susceptible when one of the team members is much more influential or powerful than the others. For the moment, call that person Gandalf. If Gandalf makes an off-hand comment that others interpret as a statement of preference, they might express support for it. And in an analogy to Group Polarization, the entire group might adopt Gandalf's idea enthusiastically, even though no one is enthusiastic about it. But unlike Group Polarization, the idea might not be radical. In some sense a trip to Abilene can be the "meh" form of Group Polarization.
To a Group polarization and trips
to Abilene are examples of
emergent group behavior that
can lead to unworkable plans
limited extent, groups can inoculate themselves against trips to Abilene by learning about the phenomenon and then adopting an intervention protocol consisting of three steps: noticing your own doubts, inquiring when you're uneasy, and checking for the Abilene itinerary. Read more about trips to Abilene.
Three other emergent phenomena that lead groups astray are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. We'll explore how they can affect planners next time.  Next in this series

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Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Harvey 1988]
Jerry Harvey. The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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